Daily Mail photographer Bob Wojcieszak has seen lots of homeless shelters in his 21 years at this newspaper.
But he noticed something special when he visited Harvest Time on Charleston’s West Side while on assignment with reporter Charlotte Smith last year.
“What struck me about this place was the amount of smiles I saw,” he said.
He started volunteering at Harvest Time occasionally, processing residents at the shelter’s front desk. He got to know Pastor Jess Inclenrock (known as “Pastor Rock” by residents) and his wife Christy.
“I saw with my own eyes the things they had taken on, and frankly, it made my jaw drop. Without assistance of any kind other than donations, this little hole-in-the-wall church feeds anyone twice a day and houses somewhere around 15 to as many as 40 homeless men,” he said.
He said the Inclenrocks have made a concerted effort to break the cycle of homelessness by helping residents get important documents, continue their education, find jobs and make housing arrangements.
Wojcieszak also became close with some of the homeless men who frequented Harvest Time, learning the stories behind their current situation and how they are trying to get back on their feet.
Starting in mid-May, Wojcieszak began lugging his cameras, lighting equipment and a background to Harvest Time to take photos of the residents.
His collection of portraits, which he has titled “Faces of the Redeemed,” will be on display during Thursday’s ArtWalk at Romano and Associates, 230 Capitol St.
The portraits were inspired by Irving Penn, a longtime photographer for “Vogue” magazine whom Wojcieszak discovered in college.
Penn was known for his portraits, taking pictures of everyone from President John F. Kennedy and Salvador Dali to Nicole Kidman and Al Pacino. He often seated his subjects in a corner or against a gray background, and then employed a controlled overhead “north light” to illuminate them.
“(Penn) said this just revealed their personalities,” Wojcieszak said. “The more I delved into him, the more I loved his style.”
Wojcieszak’s portraits of Harvest Time residents mimic Penn’s technique. The men are all seated against a gray background, which he set up in the church’s sanctuary. The subjects are lit with strong directional lighting.
And, just like Penn’s work, the photos are all in black and white.
Wojcieszak said he chose the stark, monochrome look on purpose.
“I wanted to strip away the background of homelessness and show the human beings,” he said. “I just want to give them their humanity back.
“I think you see the person for who they really are. You get to see genuine emotion.”
He also interviewed his subjects while shooting the photographs, which helped generate some of the emotion seen in the portraits.
Wojcieszak said he would ask each man’s name, age and hometown.
“Then I’d drop the bomb and ask ‘How come you’re homeless?’ It was amazing what happened. It didn’t take long, then the guys were just rambling on. They all had stories.”
One photo shows a shelter resident, Robert Sigman, folding his hands and looking to the ceiling.
Wojcieszak said the photo looks posed, but it wasn’t.
Sigman is a longtime drug addict who admits to lying, cheating and stealing to support his habit. He told Wojcieszak he should have been dead years ago.
“He just folded his hands, looked up to heaven and says ‘God help me, I made it.’”
ArtWalk is held the third Thursday of each month from July to October. The event runs from 5 to 8 p.m. with more than 20 downtown locations featuring a variety of art exhibits.
For more information, visit www.charlestonartwalk.org.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.